Back pain is very common. You are likely to have it at least once in your lifetime. In some cases it can lead to serious disability and affect the quality of life for a long time. This is why I am a big fan of all the things that can prevent back pain or reduce pain. I will always promote anything that you can do to manage your back pain. And walking practice can be a powerful weapon and become your ally in the fight with the pain
Back pain is a consequence of sedentary lifestyle
Do you think our ancestors had a lot of back pain problems and other musculoskeletal issues? Nope. They simply walked, run, and lead much more active lives than us. They kept all the joints and muscles moving. That way they kept injuries at bay and avoided pain. Simply put, movement is what our bodies are designed for! Exercise is like having a regular service for your car. It helps you in so many different ways to stay healthy! And walking is the easiest, most natural, form of movement that ticks so many boxes! It can replace many medicines that we might otherwise stop taking. What not to like about it 🙂
I see many patients with back pain, and I have noticed that the type of work that you do has a lot to do with it. Three groups of people are at higher risk of having back pain.
Back pain and your work
First group, office workers who spend long hours at the desk. They get up maybe a few times during their shift to stretch legs, grab a coffee or walk a few meters to join a meeting. Great if they did some after – work exercises, go to the gym or run. However, this is not always the case and lots of people end up on the couch, watching Netflix, and…getting ready for the next day at work. On the other end of the spectrum are those having a more physically demanding job. Some jobs (painting, decorating, manual work) can be a real killer for the low back. It is the number of repetitions that cause a strain to the back muscles and spine. And last but not least, professional drivers who also have lots of back problems. They spend long hours behind the wheel. The same body position sustained for prolonged periods can have a detrimental effect on low back and lead to pain.
So how does an injury occur?
We need to understand that there are two ways you can injure your back. First, through a sudden movement, applying too much force, and hence overloading tissues. Your body, if not conditioned appropriately, is not prepared to withstand excessive forces. It is not ready for such a challenge. I saw it many times, especially in people returning to sport, wanting to progress quickly. The body is not a machine, it needs time to adapt, hence starting slowly with physical activity and gradual progression are key. Otherwise, back pain and musculoskeletal injuries are likely to occur. Very likely.
Oftentimes, injury is a consequence of micro-injuries accumulated over time.
The bottom line is this. You can either move towards a back injury by doing nothing, or prevent it by taking regular exercise and strengthening your back. )
The choice is yours, so choose wisely 🙂
Walking to prevent back injury?
The two questions that I often get from my back pain patients are: What can I do to reduce the pain? and What can I do to make sure this does not come back?
There are many ways of preventing back pain. And I am sure all will help to some extent. However, if you ask me what would be the best option, I would always advise walking. No other preventive measure can be equally effective and powerful. Walking is the most natural physical activity you can imagine. It is easy, does not require you to invest in any expensive equipment. On top of that, you can do other things while walking. For example, why not listen to an interesting podcast or music? Or, maybe you can ask a friend to join you and have a good chat with them?
When walking may not be good for you
Although walking is the best form of exercise ( in my opinion 🙂 ) it may not be necessary right for you at this moment in time. If walking causes you sharp pain, do not do it. Always avoid anything that is causing you pain at 5 or above on the 10- points pain scale. You do not need to aggravate your pain even more. Some discomfort should be ok though (1-4 on that scale) and I would encourage you to continue and observe what is happening with the pain.
Back Pain sufferers – how do I start walking?
Here are a few tips you may find helpful.
- Start walking as soon as you can after a back injury. Remember, walking should not cause you more pain than you are already in (see above)
- Walk short distances to start off with – having a break in between and sitting for a while is ok.
- Start with a few (4-6) short (3-5 minutes) walking sessions a day
- Gradually increase distance
- Introduce gentle, 1-2 sec, stretches to your back and legs
- Try to introduce some pelvic tilting and other exercises for your back pain – you may need to consult your Physiotherapist about that first
- Introduce back stabilizing exercises tailored specifically to you – once again, it is best to check with your Physiotherapist first
Back Pain sufferers – how do I start walking?
Are you free of back pain and want to start with walking practice? Here are some tips for you:
Before you start
- Plan ahead – make sure you have a map (easy to get lost on new routes) and a charged battery on your phone. Also, think about the weather and the gear you need to take.
- If you struggle with motivation, join a local walking group, or find a walking buddy! There are plenty of walking groups to choose from on mobile app called Meetup
- Invest in good walking shoes and gear. It does not have to be anything expensive. However walking shoes/boots are really important for your joints and spine so I would get really good ones.
- Organize your time. It pays dividends to do so! Make sure you do not make the same mistake I did – there was a time in my life when I would be consumed by work. I did not have time (excuses, excuses) for anything else. Walking? Forget it. You need to dedicate enough time for walking, but believe me, this can be fun! You will not regret it. Ever. Imagine all the places you can go to. All the places you can visit!
- First of all, take it easy. Do not try to walk long distances, but rather decide that you want to make a start and make it a long term commitment.
- Start with short walks and gradually build up your stamina and fitness.
- Stay hydrated during long walks – always take a bottle of water with you. Still water is the best option.
- Listen to your body! If it says you are doing too much, probably its time for rest! 🙂
- Keep a track record of all your walks and try to look for new, exciting walking routes. I use a great app for it called All Trails and it is fantastic for that. It has so many free features that will be helpful to get you going!
And even more tips!
- Try walking briskly! Brisk walking is really good as swinging action of your arms will offload your low back. Of course, do not push yourself too much but you can start with some faster intervals and alternate between fast and slow pace.
- Do not think you can’t have a break. By all means, do! What you may introduce in your walking is some good mobility exercises, gentle short stretches, and breathing exercises – all are good to make your walking experience even more powerful for your body and soul!
- Always think about that fantastic feeling after your walk! You will be buzzing with endorphins, your appetite will be great and generally, you will be feeling awesome and like you want more! Keep at it! 🙂
- You can also try so-called pause breathing, mindfulness, and meditation while walking. These are powerful tools to enhance your psychological health. Walking can be good for your soul and help you get rid of excessive, harmful stress from your life 🙂
“I love walking because it clears your mind, enriches the soul, takes away stress, and opens up your eyes to a whole new world .” – Claudette Dudley
Walking can make your back stronger and reduce pain
Two specific and direct benefits of adding a regular walking routine to your lower back treatment program are highlighted below.
1. Walking is perfect for spinal muscles and joints
Look at the body as a whole. Your legs, pelvic and spinal muscles play a key role in maintaining the stability and movement of your lower back. They are working in a chain. Weakness in one part can induce changes in others. It is a bit like a domino effect. These muscles can become deconditioned and weak from a sedentary lifestyle (read above), causing all sorts of issues. Over a period of time, there may be an increase in muscular weakness, fatigue, injury, and pain. The overall mass of your spinal muscles may also reduce.
When you walk, muscles and joints come alive – they are designed to move! A sedentary lifestyle kills them.
Positive changes happen through:
- Increased blood flow. Decreased physical activity can cause the small blood vessels of your spine to become constricted, reducing blood flow to the spinal muscles. Walking helps open up the blood vessels, increasing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to these muscles. Have you heard the expression Use it or lose it?
- Flushed out toxins. Muscles produce physiologic toxins when they contract and expand. Over time, these toxins can accumulate within the lower back muscle tissues and cause stiffness. Walking helps flush out these toxins and improve flexibility.
2. Walking increases flexibility in your lower back
Lack of physical activity can cause the muscles and joints in your lower back and hips to become stiff. This stiffness creates increased pressure on the lumbar spine (lower back), altering its normal curvature. Your small but vital spinal joints become stiff and less effective.
Walking increases your flexibility by stretching the muscles and ligaments in the back, legs, and buttocks. When you walk, specific muscles, such as your hamstrings, erector muscles of the spine, and hip flexor muscles are activated and stretched. The flexibility of your spinal ligaments and tendons is also increased, improving the overall range of motion in your lower back. Your joints start moving better and less likely to get injured.
Additional health benefits of walking
While walking can help improve function in your lower back, it also has other health benefits. There are benefits galore! Committing to a regular walking program may help you:
- Reduce and/or maintain an optimal weight
- Decrease pain in osteoarthritis
- Minimize the risk of developing diabetes and better control glucose level
- Keep blood pressure under control
- Improve the levels of total cholesterol
- Decrease anxiety and depression
- Reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia
- With planning and organizing your life!
- With your motivation
- Get you fitter and more comfortable with your body
- With self-image
- Meet new friends
- Walking also helps increase the production of endorphins (natural pain-inhibiting hormone), decreasing the overall perception of pain.
And the list goes on and on…:-)
The key to any walking program is to start right away. Regular walking can have immediate as well as long-term effects in improving the health of your lower back tissues, restoring function, and preventing pain.
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Chartered Physiotherapist and Master Myofascial Therapist. In the NHS since 2008; I currently work in the community as a Physiotherapy Team Lead. I also run a specialist back pain physiotherapy service in Southampton, UK. Follow me on social media.